In 1997, a thick grim volume titled The Black Book of Communism became a surprise bestseller in France, where Marxism was once as commonplace as claret. Edited by Stephane Courtois, the director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, it documented the crimes against humanity committed across the globe in the name of socialism. Expertly translated for American readers by Harvard University Press in 2001, the Black Book offers an authoritative indictment, 856 pages long, of the ideological extremism to which many among the thinking classes have been susceptible. The book writes finis to the state of denial on the left concerning Stalin and Mao that long persisted, not just in France.
Faced as we are every day by a different kind of zealotry, it occurred to me that we need a companion volume, a Black Book of Religion, documenting the grievous offenses perpetrated in the name of God. The suicide bombers who have sown mayhem in Iraq, the Islamists who last year shredded railway passengers in Spain, or the demented Muslim who recently shot and stabbed a Dutch filmmaker, then pinned a note to his bleeding body boasting of his deed, are but current examples of an uncomfortable paradox. Few humans stoop lower, seemingly, than those whose gaze is fixed on heaven. The same transcendent epiphany that animates saints can perversely transform others into devils. Just how and why Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde surely deserves keener attention from the devout of all faiths, or so it seems to me.
What follows is a prospectus, humbly submitted by a troubled secularist.
The Slaying of Peacemakers
Topping my outline is the shaming fact that the bravest martyrs to peace in our own time have been murdered by their own unforgiving flock. Thus Mohandas Gandhi was fatally assailed by a Hindu, Anwar Sadat by Muslim soldiers, and Yitzhak Rabin by a demented Jew. So, too, with independent Sri Lanka's founding prime minister, Solomon Bandaranaike, slain by a Buddhist monk in 1959 for seeking to conciliate the island's estranged, non-Buddhist Tamil minority. When Michael Collins agreed in 1922 to the peace treaty with Britain partitioning Ireland, this generous-minded guerrilla chieftain confided to a colleague that he had signed his death warrant; the sentence was soon executed in Dublin by nationalist gunmen. In each case, decades of strife intensified after these sacrificial murders. Typically, awkward facts were ignored or denied within the stricken communities. Writing in Moses and Monotheism, Sigmund Freud provocatively speculated that Moses may have been secretly killed by the very Israelites whom he had led, thus explaining the Bible's silence concerning his fate.
But then, assassination from its origins has been entwined with religion. The word itself derives from hash-shashun, meaning hashish, the narcotic allegedly employed by an Islamic order to drug potential assassins in Persia and Syria. Astutely, according to accounts left by Marco Polo and by eleventh-century Crusaders, the order's grand masters arranged for drugged youths to be awakened in a castle where sultry damsels explained they were in paradise, to which they would...